December 1, 2023
4 min read
The US should retreat from modernizing its outdated nuclear weapons, especially silo-launched missiles that unnecessarily risk catastrophe
This article is part of “The New Nuclear Age,” a special report on a $1.5 trillion effort to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The US plans to modernize its unwanted, unnecessary and unsafe nuclear triad of land, sea and air weapons. Perfectly ready to fight the Cold War again, these reconditioned bombs will waste $1.5 trillion and threaten life on Earth for the next century. We need to reconsider this wretched folly instead of once again wasting our wealth while fueling a new arms race.
As described in this issue of Scientific American, This plan to burn money while endangering the world has been widely criticized in nuclear policy circles. “Russia and the United States have already had one nuclear arms race. We have spent trillions of dollars and taken incredible risks in a misguided quest for security,” wrote former US Defense Secretary William J. Perry in 2016 when the plans first came to fruition. “There is only one way to win an arms race: refuse to run.”
Although the Biden administration has canceled the Trump-era proposed sea-launched missiles, the U.S. nuclear arsenal still has some 3,700 weapons, with about 1,700 deployed for military use and the rest in storage under the department’s supervision of Energy. This amount is more than enough to threaten the destruction of humanity and the Earth’s biosphere – and it is only a fraction of the world total, not counting Russia’s similarly large stockpile and the smaller ones in China and other countries. Reducing the numbers and therefore the risks of these weapons is a responsibility that the US and the Soviet Union first recognized in the late 1960s, and this goal should now drive military and political decision-making.
Instead, the US is sleepwalking into an ill-considered and little-discussed resurrection of its Cold War three-pronged nuclear power. Meanwhile, China is expanding its own arsenal (to a quarter of the size of the US’s). New submarines, missiles and aircraft, all designed to fit a military strategy first devised before the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, will leave the dead hand of the past by 2050 and usher us into a new century of pointless risks to steer. In this future, a mistake or misjudgment could wipe out humanity, as happened almost repeatedly during the Cold War. We are just lucky, nothing more, to have survived the hundreds of false alarms that have sounded over the past decades.
At the heart of the administration’s proposal is a $100 billion bid to fill 450 nuclear silos in five domestic states with hundreds of new nuclear missiles to be launched in short order. Built before submarine-launched missiles became large, accurate and untraceable, these relics are now justified as a “nuclear sponge” to absorb a Russian attack on the US. Why put a $100 billion nuclear “kick me” sign on the nation’s breadbasket?
We cannot store the nuclear waste we have now, let alone the additional waste that will result from building these rockets. This month’s issue maps the so-called nuclear sponges [see “Sacrifice Zones”] could kill up to several million people due to radiation exposure, while hundreds of millions in North America are at risk of being exposed to fatal consequences. Even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan would kill tens of millions worldwide and cause global famine – but how can the US push other countries to disarm while so carelessly polishing its own nuclear sword?
We turned this Damoclean sword on ourselves during the Cold War, when we produced 70,000 of the plutonium “pits” that cause thermonuclear warhead explosions. Weapons tests from these blasts have contaminated every part of the Earth’s surface with plutonium, with hotspots such as Colorado’s Rocky Flats and Washington State’s Hanford sites still requiring tens of billions of dollars for cleanup. Faltering efforts to restart mine production for nuclear modernization have cost between $18 billion and $24 billion, much of which has been lost. immediately necessary.
Why do we risk so much when the lessons of the 20th century are so clear? In the words of the 1991 START Treaty, which ended the Cold War, “a nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity… it cannot be won and must never be fought.” Without considering Russia’s inability to convert its nuclear arsenal into military advantage while being bombarded by Ukrainian drones, our political class has thrown away hard-won wisdom about the deadly futility of the arms race. We recapitulate the dangers the world turned away from decades ago.
Who benefits from tracking the arms race today? Only defense industry shareholders and military contractors near silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. This in a country where we have just doubled child poverty because of the refusal to help lower-income families. It would certainly be cheaper, safer and smarter to build factories, universities or research labs in these places, build cheap housing next to new engineering or biomedical campuses and watch them prosper for the next century. a fraction of the price tag for silo overhaul. The 900 nuclear missiles aboard US submarines, meanwhile, will deter the feared nuclear first strike that the aging land-based missiles were designed to discourage at the start of the Cold War.
“A worrying new arms race is underway,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in September. “This is madness. We must reverse course.” We agree. The only real way to use nuclear weapons is never. They should only exist in numbers large enough to discourage their use by others, which they already do in abundance, without one more warhead.